"Macy's is still a thing?" a friend said when I told him I was writing this column. "I figured Amazon was just going to take over the Thanksgiving parade with drones and that would be the end of it."
While my friend's point may be tongue-in-cheek, his comments also reveal something broader about relevancy and brand recognition when it comes to the retailer.
There are conflicting ideas about Macy's. On one hand, the department store is still a popular online destination. According to a recent SimilarWeb Retail Trend report, it has the most visited website for apparel in average monthly traffic proving that there is an audience that is actively engaging with the retailer. On the other hand, the company's most recent holiday season was rough, especially after post-Black Friday sales.
The department store's most recent earnings also had mixed results. While revenue dipped slightly to $5.5 billion from $5.54 in the year-ago quarter, the company landed its sixth consecutive quarter of comparable sales growth, and pointed to mobile as its "fastest-growing channel."
Macy's seems to be self aware and is making decisions to shake itself up and attempt to vary its retail strategy. Two of the most notable efforts are the addition of the narrative-driven, rotating, in-store retail space Story, and the retailer's off-price efforts via the Macy's Backstage concept.
A recent trip to Macy's in downtown Washington, D.C, revealed that what makes Macy's Backstage different has nothing to do with product selection (especially when it comes to apparel). Rather, it offers something that other great chains haven't had up until this point — a more relaxed shopping experience.
Macy's Story is different. The concept is carefully curated, but will it be enough to bring shoppers back to the store?
Macy's Backstage gets discount shopping together
While discount retailers like T.J. Maxx, Marshall's and Ross offer the delight of discovery and the promise of fantastic prices, the pain points are quite obvious. The stores can be disorganized to the point of messiness. It's impossible to find staff that can or will answer questions. The details are inconsistent, including if items are marked correctly or priced at all. It's easy to get lost in mountains of merchandise. For a determined shopper, these are slight obstacles, minor nuances that can be ignored or brushed away because the larger objective is about savings. For others, it can be a step too far, a headache that's not worth the time to dig for deals.
Macy's Backstage has not completely solved these pain points, but there is an obvious attempt to take away the things that make discount shopping irritating.
Visiting an off-price store is similar to navigating through a casino in Vegas. There are no clocks, no windows. There is little signage and the path between sections is winding, in an attempt to slow down the public to hit up as many spaces as possible.
Macy's Backstage still may be stuffed full of merchandise, but it's much easier to navigate than other discount stores due to large, clear signage. Big sections are clearly labeled, and apparel t-stands sometimes have brand names or price points.
- Labeling sizes
Discount stores rely heavily on the concept of a treasure hunt in order to push sales, banking on consumers' joy of finding that perfect piece of apparel at the right price. But what starts out as discovery can quickly turn into frustration. It's all about the tension of keeping shoppers interested and not dissuading them from digging.
As a deal shopper, I'm willing to put up with a certain amount of mess in order to land a great bargain. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find that as I was going through a selection of dresses, each one correctly corresponded to the size on the hanger.
This rarely happens when bargain shopping.
Was it a fluke? Just to be sure, I went through a section of about 40 tops item by item. Each hanger correctly reflected the size of the blouse. It's a small detail, but one that was so appreciated when trying to locate the correct size.
- Organized Merchandising
Similarly to correctly labeling clothing sizes, the merchandise was thoughtfully organized throughout Backstage, with an eye to detail. Products in the home section were aligned and grouped in vignettes that allowed for discovery.
But the most impressive orderly part of Backstage was in beauty. Discount shoppers are accustomed to a certain amount of — let's say — in-store goop when it comes to shopping. Product spills are normal and items can be sticky. There were lots of different types of personal care products within Backstage, but everything was orderly. And no spills in sight.
Telling another Story
Macy's acquired the store concept Story about a year ago, and its founder, Rachel Shechtman, joined the company as brand experience officer. At the time, Macy's stated that the acquisition was a means of delivering an innovative retail experience.
The store-within-a-store is built to be in a constant state of evolution, with a magazine-like approach with varying themes, events and product partnerships. Story is now in a handful of stores, including Washington, D.C.
- An appeal to the senses
A recent visit found Story was full of clever products organized by colors on movable kiosks and a "Letter from the Editor" sign that explained the color-coded concepts. Green was "Go Express Yourself," then there was "Say Yellow There," "Orange You Glad You Came?" and "Paint the Town Red."
The space is modular, with each shelf space carrying a variety of objects that appealed to different senses including cotton candy, candles, books and beauty products.
- Gifts at the right price
The assortment of items is fantastic for gift-giving. Most products are under the $25 mark and appealed to different senses. There is cotton candy in buckets. Socks and plants and notebooks. If you are going to a birthday party or housewarming, this is definitely an option for a gift.
The merchandising is also precise. Everything is aligned, in its place. It is apparent that there is thoughtful planning to highlight products and to keep the shopper engaged.
- Enthusiastic staff
When I went into Story, I was given some time to shop uninterrupted, and someone approached me later. The Story concept was explained, and I was told about different events in the space. There was a genuine enthusiasm about Story and the staff encouraged me to shop at my own pace and to ask questions. It was a great, blended approach of allowing me space to explore the concept and being available but not crowding the experience. It was reminiscent of the type of experience one would expect from an independent boutique.
While I was impressed by Story, I don't know if the concept would draw me back in again and again to see how the theme changes. It feels like a great place to shop for a gift, but it also requires me to still go into the department store to peruse its offerings.
And I guess that's the entire point — to push foot traffic. But, it still requires me to get myself geared up to step into a mall. Or, in this case, to go into downtown D.C. to have that experience. I can get candles from other retailers. I can purchase a notebook or clever socks just about anywhere.
I'm not sure what would push me to bypass other shopping options and come into Macy's for Story, even though I am part of its target demographic. That's the difficult thing to tease out about the overarching shopping experience. What would make a weekend trip to Story worth it? The answer I keep mulling over keeps coming back to a smaller store format. (Perhaps as it was originally intended.) Story contains items that can be found in many locations, including independent stores I like to support. Those options are available to me online and in different neighborhoods without my need to traipse to a mall or downtown to fight crowds.
Same thing with Backstage. The smaller in-store footprint and ease of shopping does make me want to pop in the space to spend a few minutes and find a quick deal. But, even going into a larger Macy's to get to the section of the store that is appealing still requires planning and effort.
I do appreciate the company's willingness to experiment and to play with format, merchandising and retail concepts.
I just don't know if cleverness is enough to make it a shopping destination.